Surveying media bias

It was a lousy day to be John McCain, Keith Olbermann informed his viewers Thursday on MSNBC.

Barack Obama's surge in the polls was so strong he was competitive in McCain's home state, Arizona. The everyman hero of McCain's campaign, “Joe the Plumber,” failed to make an expected appearance at a rally in Defiance, Ohio, and the senator's efforts to highlight Obama's association with a professor tied to the PLO were amounting to nothing.

Wait a minute … not so fast. Click.

Things were looking up for McCain, the Fox News Channel hosts Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren told their viewers at roughly the same time Thursday. He got a boost at an afternoon rally in Sandusky, Ohio, from none other than Joe the Plumber, who announced his intention to vote for “a real American, John McCain”; he was gaining new ground in ever-tightening polls, despite the overwhelming bias against him in the mainstream news media; and Obama's association with a professor sympathetic to the PLO was now at “the center of the election.”

On any given night, there are two distinctly, even extremely, different views of the presidential campaign offered on two of the three big cable news networks, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, a dual reality also reflected on the Internet.

On one, polls that are “tightening” are emphasized over those that are not, and the rest of the news media is portrayed as papering over questions about Obama's past associations with people who have purportedly anti-American tendencies, which he has not answered. (“I feel like we are talking to the Germans after Hitler comes to power, saying, ‘Oh, well, I didn't know,'” Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator, told Hannity on Thursday.)

On the other, polls that show tightening are largely ignored, and the race is cast as one between an angry and erratic McCain, whose desperate, misleading campaign has as low as a 4 percent chance of beating a cool, confident and deserving Democratic nominee. (“He's been a good father, a good citizen; he's paid attention to his country,” Chris Matthews, the MSNBC host, said Wednesday night in addressing those who might be leaning against Obama based on race. “Give the guy a break and think about voting for him.”)

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, each campaign is often at war against its television antagonist, just as the networks are at war with each other.

It is a political division of news that harks back to the way American journalism was through the first half of the 20th century, when newspapers had more open political affiliations. But it has never been so apparent in such a clear-cut way on television, a result of market forces and partisan sensibilities that are further chipping away at the post-Watergate pre-eminence of a more dispassionate approach.

The more objective approach came as the corporate owners of the networks pushed for higher profits and the newspaper industry consolidated and sought broader audiences. “To sell as many copies as you could to as many people as you could, you became what we considered objective,” said Richard Wald, a professor of media and society at Columbia University and a former, senior vice president at ABC News.

Fox News Channel was founded 12 years ago with an argument that the mainstream news media were biased toward liberals and that nonliberals were starved for a “Fair and Balanced” television antidote by day and openly conservative-leaning opinion by night.

But it was only in the past couple of years that MSNBC, long struggling for an identity and lagging, established itself as a liberal alternative to Fox in prime time, finding improved ratings in the mistrust of the mainstream media that had grown among those on the left during the Bush years.

The presidential campaign, and the partisan and ideological intensity surrounding it, has provided endless fodder for the networks to play to the persuasions of their audience and mock the views expressed on the rival network.

The result is a return to a “great tradition of American journalism,” Wald said. “Basically you chose your news outlet if it made you happy, if it reinforced all your views.”

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center, said, “To some extent, they are reverse images of each other.”

The group has studied the tone and content of the election-year coverage and found that McCain has been the subject of more negative reports in general than has Obama on issues that include assessments of their performances in polls, the debates and running their campaigns.

But within that universe, the study found, the number of positive reports on McCain at Fox News was above the average of the news media at large, and the number of negative reports about Obama was higher, too. (The study found that the mix of positive and negative was roughly equal for them on Fox.)

And the study found that MSNBC featured more negative reports about McCain than the rest of the news media and more positive reports about Obama. CNN was generally in line with the average.

Rosenstiel said Fox News and MSNBC showed ideological differences, “obviously more so at night.” And executives at those networks said that opinion was kept to their prime-time lineups and away from their reporting.

Officials at the Obama and McCain campaigns said last week that they believed they were treated fairly by the reporters assigned to them at the two networks, including Major Garrett and Carl Cameron at Fox News Channel and Kelly O'Donnell and Lee Cowan at NBC News.

Fox News executives would not comment for this article. Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, agreed that at night his network gives a decidedly opinionated viewpoint.

“All of our material is based on fact — our guys work really hard on it, and the point-of-view shows make their conclusions,” he said. “In this modern era, you've got a variety of places that look at the day's events. Some you respect more than others, others you recognize as having a point of view, some you see as factual in a different way, and it all blends together into how you make your decision for what's going on.

“The burden,” he said, “is a little more on the individual.”